Binatang Research Centre: Study, Collaboration, Conservation

Binatang Research Centre: Study, Collaboration, Conservation

New Guinea Binatang Research Centre: Study, Collaboration and Conservation

About the Writer:

Bradley Gewa (Left) is a former Research Technician from the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre in Madang, where he helped in the study of insect-plant interactions in the PNG rainforest, as well as supported community-based conservation projects. He has a keen affinity for nature, loves books and writing, and is a life-long student after the pursuit of knowledge.

Binatang Research Centre
Bradley (L) explains BRC work to French Ambassador to PNG, His Excellency Pascal Maubert (middle R), 2015

Editor’s note: The article about the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre is Bradley’s second work published on PNG Insight. We are humbled to have published this article.

The article gives insight into the collaboration, training and research work of the Research Centre in Madang, Papua New Guinea.

The writer’s experience is a testament to the work he did in collaboration with the national and international researchers at (and visitors to) the Centre. We also learnt that there is a Carnivorous Fly named after the writer.

Work of New Guinea Binatang Research Centre
Read about the writer’s visit to London Kew Royal Botanic Gardens 2013

The writer’s first article (PNG Scientist Visits London Kew Botanic Garden) is a story about work, travel, collaboration, conservation and people…a fantastic story.

Bradley’s experience as a leading Papua New Guinean at the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (working with World Class academics, locals, researchers and conservationists) is, in one word, inspirational!

Binatang Research Centre – how it started

The Binatang Research Centre (or BRC) is a Not-for-Profit organization nestled in the beautiful Nagada Harbour in the Madang Province, Papua New Guinea. The research centre is dedicated to ecological research, biodiversity conservation and the training of Papua New Guineans in biological research.

It had its modest beginning in 1993, after the Christensen Research Institute (CRI), a formerly world-renowned research organization in Madang closed down.

Several expatriate researchers, then beginning their careers as young tropical ecologists, and who had fallen in love with PNG and its vast opportunities for biological research, collected a handful of their trusted local field assistants, moved camp and established BRC just across the small quiet bay from the then CRI.

From just a handful of researchers and their local assistants, mostly recruited from the surrounding villages in Madang with little formal education apart from their extensive traditional knowledge and experience in the rainforest, BRC now numbers a team of over 30 members, including overseas researchers and students, and trained PNG research staff and students.

World-class training, research and conservation at New Guinea Binatang Research Centre

Papua New Guineans attached with the New Guinea Binatang Research Centre receive world-class training in ecological research and biodiversity conservation. The local trainees have become experts in their specialities of different plant and animal groups.

The Centre has also been actively training undergraduate and post-graduate students from PNG universities, boasting the mentoring of more than 50 percent of UPNG’s post-graduate students in the Biological Sciences in recent times.

In collaboration with its major research partner, the University of South Bohemia, Binatang Research Centre also currently has 6 PNG students pursuing Masters and PhD degrees in Ecology in the Czech Republic, most likely the largest group of PNG post-graduate students studying the Biological Sciences at the same institution outside PNG at any one time. (link to PNG students in Czech post on BRC Facebook page)

Transfer of skills and knowledge to Papua New Guineans

BRC’s model for biological research and training is so successful that in more than two decades, it has continued to strive to continue its mission, even without any PNG government assistance, and when other similar organizations have ceased to operate due to various hardships.

The collaboration between overseas researchers, overseas students, PNG research staff, students, local landowners and field assistants results in the effective dissemination of scientific research skills and knowledge to PNG nationals; and the seamless exchange of local traditional knowledge with international scientists. (link to Binatang Research Centre research work gets international recognition, Post Courier).

Self-reliance and global competition for funding support

In this self-reliant model, the expatriate researchers design research projects and experiments and propose these studies to international research funding bodies to secure funds to carry out these projects.

Often, these proposals compete with numerous others from all over the world for funding. Once these funds are secured (which is not always the case) the New Guinea BRC researchers with their already-trained staff carry out these projects, often recruiting and training local landowners as field assistants to help.

Data gathered from these studies are then published in international scientific journals, further helping the organization to secure financial support for the next projects.

More and more, BRC has been training its PNG students to also design research studies and submit proposals to compete for funding at the international level.

So far, several such applications have been successful and have helped fund student studies.

International scientific collaborations at Binatang Research Centre

The Centre also facilitates field data collection for visiting researchers from all over the world, thus broadening its network of collaborators.

Furthermore, BRC expatriate researchers are often attached as academics in their home country universities and regularly bring in their PhD students to conduct field studies in PNG.

These international students are often specialized in certain areas in biology, and thus extend the research effort and training of Papua New Guineans in these areas.

New Guinea Binatang Research Centre Innovative biological research and conservation organisation in PNG

Using this model for scientific research collaboration over the years, the organization has published more than 150 scientific papers in international journals to date; and is currently a leading biological research organization in PNG with an admired reputation abroad.

With its international connections and world-class training standards, several PNG staff have also been engaged in overseas research projects and spent time working with scientists in Panama, Japan and Australia.

In recent years, the Binatang Research Centre has also helped to establish several major innovative field research infrastructures in PNG, including the

  • Wanang 50 Hectare Forest Dynamics Plot,
  • Swire-Steamship Field Research Station in Wanang,
  • Mt. Wilhelm Altitudinal Gradient Transect, and
  • Baitabag Forest Canopy Crane.

More information about Binatang Research Centres’ activities and exciting projects can be found on the BRC website and its Facebook page.

Working at New Guinea Binatang Research Centre (BRC)

(Note: The writer recall’s his experience of working at the world-class New Guinea Binatang Research Centre)

In 2009, as a grade-12 leaver, I became involved with the Binatang Research Centre. My role as a former Research Technician at the Centre involved assisting researchers in carrying out field data collection, supervision of field assistants as well as laboratory data entry and processing and identifying insect samples.

Work of New Guinea Binatang Research Centre
How moth species can differ internally and externally

In the different specialized sections in the Binatang Research Centre, my main area of attention involved working with moths and butterflies, although I was also trained in the broader insect group and would also work with other insects whenever the need arose.

At BRC, one of our main research focuses was in studying insect and plant food web systems in the rainforest, and so I was responsible for moths and butterfly samples and data collected from the field.

Another important task that I was trained in was the management of our extensive online insect database, which contains more than half a million records of insects and their host plants studied so far, with thousands of species documented.

My attachment with BRC also brought me in contact with numerous overseas and PNG scientists and students, and enabled me to travel to beautiful, remote areas in New Britain, the Highlands and the Momase regions of PNG.

In 2013, a colleague and I were fortunate to travel overseas for 2 months for training with our collaborators, visiting Australia, Singapore, England, Wales and the Czech Republic.

A series of stories I wrote about this overseas travel can be found here: (link to my European sojourn published on PNG Insight)

PNG’s little-known “University of BRC”

As a testament to the quality of the training that PNG nationals receive at the Binatang Research Centre, visitors and dignitaries who sometimes visit the otherwise little-known BRC campus would always be in awe at the research work being carried out by the team. And especially at the number of PNG experts on different plant and animal groups trained and working there.

As a Team Leader in the Zoology section, when I would explain our work to students and dignitaries who would visit, they would be amazed and would often enquire about which university I had graduated from. This question would always stop me in my tracks, and my quiet reply that I was only a grade 12 leaver would mostly surprise them.

At one instance, after witnessing this and after the visitors had left, our Director and co-founder of BRC, a well-respected expatriate Ecologist and academic, half-jokingly told me,

“The next time they ask you which university you finished from, just tell them: the University of BRC”.

I would keep this in mind and would later answer such future queries, with a knowing little smile, that I had never been to any university (at least none that they would be aware of).

Carnivorous fly from Mt Wilhelm named after me

Very few people are privileged to have plants or animal species named after them. I am fortunate to be one of these people and this is the story of how I came to have a carnivorous fly from Mt. Wilhelm bears my name.

The taxonomists may name the new species in honour of people who are important to them. This may include their family members, friends, colleagues, people who have collected the specimens and those who have made significant contributions to the study or conservation of these particular organisms.

Darwin, Attenborough and Trump – recognition of contribution

Charles Darwin, the world-renowned naturalist and father of the “Theory of Evolution” has numerous species of plant and animal species named in his honour, including the famous “Darwin’s Finches” from the Galapagos Islands.

Another person well-known for his educational wildlife documentaries, Sir David Attenborough, has many species of flora and fauna named after him.

Even Donald Trump has a tiny moth bearing his name because the moth had yellowish hairs on its head that reminded the taxonomist of the current US President.

Often, these species names will look something like “darwini” or “attenboroughi”, which would be Latin for “belonging to Darwin”, for example.

As an unwritten rule, taxonomists normally do not name new species after themselves, as this is seen as being immodest. But other taxonomist colleagues may dedicate a new species in their honour to recognize their contributions to the study of a particular organism group.

Wait! What is the name of the Carnivorous Fly of Mt Wilhelm named after the writer?

Well, we asked the same question. We do not know yet. We hope to find out in the next article.

PNG Insight is (definitely) looking forward to finding out the name of the Carnivorous Fly of Mt Wilhelm named after the writer. We will let our readers know when we find out. Watch this space.

Meanwhile, read the Beginner’s Guide to the World of Taxonomy and find out about the new species found in Papua New Guinea in the next part of this article – read on.

Beginner’s Guide to the World of Taxonomy and New Spices

In the world today there are still many undescribed species of plants and animals. Within the realm of animals, insects make up more than half of all the species currently in existence, having an estimated 6 to 10 million species.

Because they are numerous, often tiny, and occupy a wide range of different habitats, many insects are still unknown to science and so biologists are still discovering and describing new insect species almost every day.

Taxonomists and new species

When entomologists (scientists who study insects) collect insect specimens that they suspect may be new species, they send them to specialists of these particular insect groups to check and confirm this.

Depending on their specific groups of study, these specialists can be called different names. For example, specialists who work on moths and butterflies are called “Lepidopterists” (Lepidoptera being the scientific term for moths and butterflies), beetle specialists are called “Coleopterists”, and so forth.

Collectively, these specialists are known as “Taxonomists”, and they have the important job of checking, classifying, describing and naming plant and animal species.

Careful checking is vital in a Taxonomist’s work

When the specialists receive these suspected new species, they carefully check their records, as well as existing literature, images and insect collections and museums throughout the world to find if the specimen has already been collected and described.

Some specialists are very experienced in the specific groups that they sometimes can automatically tell if a specimen is undescribed. However, they still have to carefully check to confirm this.

If they determine that the specimen is a new species, they then thoroughly describe its characteristics, including where it was collected and its behaviours (if the information on its behaviour is available to them at that time).

Then, to officially announce this to the scientific community and the world, the name and description of the new species are formally published by the taxonomist in a journal article.

In addition to publishing the new find, it is required that a “type specimen” or representative specimen of the new species be selected and set aside for future reference regarding that certain species.

DNA and Insect Genitalia help with identification

In many insect groups, apart from checking their external morphological characteristics, proper identification entails carefully dissecting the male specimen’s abdomen and looking at the shape and structure of its reproductive organ or genitalia (called the Aedeagus).

No two insect species will have the same aedeagus shape or structure, and so comparing this with other species can help taxonomists to determine whether a species is the same or a different one.

Sometimes two species can look the same outwardly, but their reproductive organs will tell them apart.

In insect collections, especially for moths and butterflies, it is not uncommon to see some specimens missing their abdomens, as these have been removed for the study of their internal organs.

Nowadays, with current technological developments, DNA from the specimens can also be analyzed and cross-checked against online databases, an example being the “Barcode of Life” DNA database (https://ibol.org/), to confirm species identifications.

This has helped make the process much easier and faster.

Species discovered in New Guinea
How moth species can differ internally and externally

The language of Taxonomy

In the naming of species, taxonomists use the Latin language. This convention of science is because Latin was one of the earliest languages used in formal scientific studies; and also because being a ‘dead language’ and not actively used by people today, Latin is no longer evolving or changing and can be understood by scientists all over the world in its original state.

As a simple demonstration of the usefulness of Latin in this manner, imagine if the English language was used – a language that has been gradually changing since its original form, and whose words and phrases can be used and understood differently in different parts of the world. You can see how confusion can easily arise through this.

Genus and Species

In Biology, a “Species” refers to organisms that are able to mate with each other and reproduce successfully, and is the smallest unit of classification that a plant or animal can be put into.

Species names are “binomial”, meaning that two words make up the name. The first name is called the “Genus”, and covers a broader group of organisms that share similar characteristics.

The second name or “Species” name is specific to a particular species. Binomial species names are often italicized when written.

The Genus name always begins with a capital letter, while the Species name is always in small letters. For example, the scientific name for Human Beings, which we are all familiar with, “Homo sapiens”, means “Wise Man” in Latin.

Binomial system of classification for plants and animals

This binomial system of classification for plants and animals was first developed and used by Carl Linneaus (1707-1778), an early Swedish Naturalist known as the “father of modern taxonomy”.

It is important to have unique binominal species names because mistakenly having two or more species sharing the same name will create a lot of confusion. As such, the significance of carefully checking records and collections from all over the world before naming a new species cannot be understated in the taxonomist’s work.

There are internationally recognized rules governing how new species are named, called “Nomenclature Codes”, which taxonomists abide by when describing and naming new species.

Names that taxonomists give to new species

Most times, taxonomists will name species after its distinguishing characteristics. For instance, a species of Fig recently discovered in Madang, whose leaves are traditionally used by villagers to produce a red pigment to dye their bilum strings and cloth is called “Ficus rubrivestimenta”.

In Latin, Rubrivestimenta translates to “Red Cloth”. The common housefly, “Musca domestica”, is another example, where its species name implies that it is characteristically found in homes (domestic).

Another interesting new species of Fig found in Madang, “Ficus sangumae” is named so because of the local people’s association of the plant with “Sanguma” or sorcery-related practices.

New species can also be named after the place or locality where they have been collected. There are many species of plants and animals that have the species name “novoguinensis”, Latin for “from New Guinea”, as they have been collected on the island of New Guinea (either in PNG or the West Papuan side). Other names are specific to the local area or village. (Link to new species discoveries in PNG)